Facebook co-founder and chairman Mark Zuckerberg is inching closer to his goal of connecting the world to the Internet after signing up 22 African countries to its free Internet service.
The countries with a combined population of 635 million — led by Nigeria’s 182 million — will be granted free access to the social media site through Zuckerberg’s Free Basics initiative.
Free Basics operates in 44 countries, but its most recent target is to connect Africa to the 1.7 billion monthly active users Facebook attracts. Africa has, by far, the lowest percentage of its population using the Internet.
Percentage of population using the Internet by region (Internet World Stats):
Zuckerberg introduced Free Basics in Barcelona in February 2014 under a different name — Internet.org — but with the same goal of globalizing the Internet. Internet.org allowed access to 36 bookmarked sites — one weather app, three sites for women’s issues, Bing — and unsurprisingly Facebook, the only social media site. Facebook had full control of what sites to allow on the platform, creating anger over net neutrality.
People started to voice their concerns that this seemingly philanthropic endeavor was motivated by brand awareness. Osama Manza of the Digital Empowerment Foundation said instead of allowing free access, Facebook was acting as a gatekeeper in limiting the Internet for the millions of people who had little knowledge of what the Internet was capable of.
“What Zuckerberg means by 'Internet for all' is essentially 'Facebook for all,' with a few nonprofit services thrown in,” journalist Nikhil Pahwa noted.
Internet.org featured the employment site Babajob, which created complaints because it allowed certain firms featured on the website to see an unprecedented growth while the competitors that weren’t featured remained stagnant.
Facebook, faced with the sincere possibility of failure in India, employed a $40 million campaign to advertise the newly branded Free Basics. Billboards obnoxiously lined crowded roads, and Facebook created pop-up advertisements urging everyone using the social media site and to fight to keep Facebook in India.
In February 2016, a year after its launch, Free Basics was deemed illegal in India because of net neutrality.
And the concerns that sent Free Basics in India into extinction could still remain in Africa. Critics have called Zuckerberg a digital colonialist, saying Facebook is attempting to connect the world but in a way that limits their access to the Internet.
Most recently, Nigeria — Africa’s most populated country — launched 80 pre-selected websites through Free Basics. Of the 182 million people living in Nigeria, just under 93 million of them have Internet access. While this opens up the opportunity for tens of millions of Nigerians to access the Internet, the use will be limited to sites Facebook approves.
Attempting to save the dying initiative in India, Zuckerberg wrote an opinion piece in the India Times stating that Facebook’s commercial interests were not top of mind.
Even though Internet.org was banned in India, it doesn’t mean African countries will follow suit. Tanzania’s Communications Regulatory Authority said having Internet access is more important than concerns over net neutrality because of the wealth it can create for the country.
“An initiative that spurs adoption of data services for Tanzania for now is more beneficial to the market,” Innocent Mungy, a spokesman representing the country where just 5 percent of the population uses the internet, told Quartz.
Whether there is more uproar over Facebook’s limitations and so-called “walled garden” of Internet usage in developing countries remains to be seen, but Africa and Facebook are at least committing to give it a try.
Here's the current percentage of people using the Internet in the African countries where Free Basic has launched (Quartz):
Based in Atlanta, GA, Grant is a nonprofit professional and freelance writer passionate about affordable housing and finding sustainable approaches to international development. A proud graduate of the University of Maryland, Grant spent four months post-grad living in Armenia where he worked for Habitat for Humanity and the World Food Programme. He enjoys playing trivia with friends but is still seeking his first victory - he ceaselessly blames his friends lack of preparation.